By OBINNA EZUGWU
Last week, while a Federal high court sitting in Abuja and presided over by Justice Binta Nyako held proceedings in the treason trial of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, leader of separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) on Tuesday, through Wednesday, before eventually adjourning the case till February 16, in the South East, a little boy identified as Kamsi, not more than 10, held out a mock gun which he had hidden between the edges of an old motorcycle tyre, pointed it to the sky as if to fire shots into the air and began:
“A loaded gun is about to explode. Igbo bu Igbo kwenu, Biafra Kwezuonu. Within these three days, one thing must happen. Nnamdi Kanu must go home, because he whose hands are clean will get justice. Let’s come out en masse to fight our brother’s battle….
“If they don’t release Nnamdi Kanu, I give them three days. If they don’t release Nnamdi Kanu, my mentor and our saviour, I will target Aso Rock.”
But while the little boy – whose innocent outburst is testament to the level of emotional attachment to Kanu and his quest among the younger generation – held only a stick shaped like a gun with which he threatened to launch attack on Aso Rock Villa if his mentor and saviour was not released, tens, mostly young followers of the IPOB leader wandered around with real guns violently enforcing a sit-at-home order issued by the group in deference to him, a practice that began in the middle of last year when his trial resumed upon his re-arrest in Kenya.
In Oko, Anambra State, wares of hapless market women were seized by the gunmen and set ablaze, while a number of motorcycles, tricycles and even cars were equally burnt to ashes. Indeed, the event took a more tragic turn with the murder of a business man who had only recently returned from Lagos in Enugu; a continuation of violence that had peaked early last year following the launch in December 2020 of Eastern Security Network (ESN), an armed wing of IPOB ostensibly to fight violent herdsmen attacking communities in the zone.
The growing violent conduct by manifestly criminal elements riding the IPOB wave to unleash attacks on random people in the Southeast amid the mindless sit-at-home orders has stunned even some of the staunchest supporters of the proscribed group, and rattled the political leaders of the zone. But the events happen to be direct consequence of Kanu’s trial in Abuja. And for many, speak to the fact that as opposed to ending the agitation, Buhari’s resort to the court to attempt to resolve what is essentially a political issue is ill-thought.
“The case is a political case. The trial is a political trial and Kanu remains a political prisoner,” argued a chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo who preferred anonymity.
“Whatever detention he is facing is political and the trial is political. As far as they continue to delay the trial, the pressure will continue to be on the federal government, not Kanu. This is because if you look at it, this issue is bigger than Kanu as an individual.
“It is an issue that has to do with the self-determination struggle of people in an ethnic nationality; people that are tired of the crisis of the Nigerian federation. And insofar as the crisis of that federation continues to exist, Kanu will remain a hero to his followers and an enigma.
“So, his trial will always put pressure on the Nigerian government, no matter how long they want to adjourn it. The trial cannot be to their favour.”
Indeed, the Buhari government’s preference for the stick in dealing with the agitators has proved counterproductive over time. The president continues to put every foot wrong, it would seem, and has in the past six years, only succeeded in provoking what is gradually turning into a full blown insurgency, one that has rattled everyone in the zone and put Igbo leaders on the edge.
In 2012 when Kanu, a former disciple of Ralph Uwazurike, an Indian trained lawyer who formed the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in 1999, began broadcasting through a radio station he registered as Radio Biafra – a reference to the original Radio Biafra which had operated in Biafra during the brutal civil war of 1967 to 1970 – which he had set up around 2009 at his base in Peckham, South-East London, he mostly existed on the fringes, ignored by the then government of Goodluck Jonathan and shunned by the mainstream media.
His rise from relative obscurity to national prominence is thanks, ironically, to President Buhari, who had set out upon taking office as president in 2015, to quickly crush a man he must have concluded was an irritant who wasn’t aware of what his parents saw during the 30-month civil war that officially began on July 6, 1967, few months before he was born on September 25, 1967 and ended on January 15, 1970, four months after his second birthday.
In October 2015, the Department of State Services (DSS) arrested him in a Lagos hotel and the legal battle as well as clamp down on his supporters that followed only served to turn into a huge political figure, that by the time he was eventually released in 2017 on bail, he had begun to loom large and thousands trooped to his Afara Ukwu, Umuahia, Abia State home to pay homage to a man who, in their reckoning, was an uncompromising hero and saviour.
The Buhari government again, responded by sending troops to crush the movement. It launched the infamous Operation Python Dance of September 2017, which led to the killing of about 28 people in Umuahia, Aba and elsewhere in the region. And subsequently proscribed the group as a terrorist organisation.
Kanu fled and remained incommunicado for over a year, reappearing in Israel in 2018 amid speculations that he may have been killed during the military operation in his home. He subsequently settled in the UK where he continued to rant on radio Biafra and various other social media outlets.
At this time, he had gradually grown into a cult hero, combining both the power of the media and his people’s emotional attachment to Biafra to win converts in their millions. Today, his words, to many, are laws. He is a savour; prophet and one divinely ordained to deliver Biafra.
A turning point of the agitation would come in December 2020 when Kanu announced the launch of ESN, an armed group that initially made forest inhabiting herdsmen its target before turning against security agencies which it claimed were interfering with the quest to ride the zone of violent herdsmen. Soon, another brand of gunmen baptized as unknown gunmen began attacking police stations and military formations in the Southeast and parts of South South.
An insurgency had been born, one that security agencies are presently battling to contain.
The rearrest of Kanu in Kenya, and his subsequent rendition to Nigeria by the Nigerian government in June 2021, must have been interpreted by the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, who had gleefully announced the development as a win for the government and a big step in the direction of silencing the IPOB leader. But just like his initial arrest in 2015, the reverse has proved to be the case.
Southeast has become increasingly volatile, even as forceful sit-at-home orders issued and enforced by his would be followers continue to take a toll on the economy of the region.
“The Federal government ought to pursue political solution and not just a political solution that is about releasing him from the tension because that would not have solved any problem,” said Chief Abia Onyike, spokesperson for Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF).
“There should be radical political reforms, either by way of reconstituting the federation of Nigeria, in other words, the federal government yielding to the numerous agitations by different groups in the country by creating an agenda for political reforms, what is generally referred to as restructuring.
“But they are not doing any of this or convoking a sovereign national conference. Such national conference should at least deal with the current diseased federal structure and give way to something that is upright that takes care of the needs and aspirations of the various groups making up the Nigerian federation.
“In so far as that disease remains untreated, Kanu will continue to be considered to be a hero.”
The agitation has evidently assumed a life of its own, as evidenced in the continued enforcement of Monday sit-at-home order already cancelled by the leadership of the IPOB, even as random kidnap and murder of traditional rulers and sundry members of the elite, one highlighted by the killing of Dr. Chike Akunyili, husband of the late former minister and NAFDAC DG, Professor Dora Akunyili last year, continues to send shock down the spines of particularly the elite class.
As the separatist violence rips through a region that only few years ago was rated the most peaceful in the country, there is perhaps enough blame to go round. The inability of successive Igbo political leadership to deliver good governance, one that could grow the economy and provide jobs, was only worsened by a sense of marginalisation from the federal government. The mass of unemployed youths in the region have found Biafra as an alluring alternative.
“Part of the challenge we have had is that when the youths started this agitation, the political elite failed to understand them. They were seen as irritants. And as opposed to engaging them constructively, they were struggling to prove that they are always right and our children are always wrong. It hasn’t helped,” said Evangelist Elliot Uko, founder of Igbo Youth Movement.
“From the military era, to the 1999-2022 democratic experiment, our youth population have been totally and completely sidelined as if they don’t matter. Fit only as political thugs, nothing more. No large-scale impactful skills acquisition, further education or arts, sports or entertainment programmes, to engage, sharpen or occupy our leaders of tomorrow,” he said.
“They have borne the brunt of the serial oppression of our people over the years. Abandoned and utterly left to their devices, even as politicos provocatively pounded our streets in state-of-the art SUVs, suggesting to them to go to hell, they decided to take their destiny into their hands. When they, out of frustration began to let off steam and vent their anger, agitating for attention, they were shot at, and ignored for 22 years.”
Jolted by the rapid escalation of violence, Igbo leaders have upped their demand for political solution, but the Buhari government has other ideas. In November, First Republic parliamentarian and former Minister of Aviation, 93-year-old Mbazulike Amaechi led a group of leaders to appeal to the president to release Kanu and seek political solution to the agitation, an appeal the president initially promised to consider, but subsequently backtracked maintaining in an interview with Channels TV earlier in the year that the separatist group leader cannot be released, as according to him, he would not interfere with the judiciary.
“There is one institution that I wouldn’t interfere with, that is the judiciary, Kanu’s case is with the judiciary but what I wonder is when Kanu was safely in Europe, abusing this administration and mentioning too many things, I thought he wants to come and defend himself on the accusations,” Buhari had said in the interview aired on Wednesday January 5.
“So, we are giving him an opportunity to defend himself in our system, not to be abusing us from Europe as if he was not a Nigerian. Let him come here with us and then criticise us here. Nigerians know that I don’t interfere with the judiciary, let him be listened to. But those who are saying that he should be released, no, we cannot release him.”
As if to drive home the point, the federal government through the AGF, Malami, on Monday, barely 24 hours to the commencement of Kanu’s trial on Tuesday, filed fresh terrorism charges against the detained IPOB leader, increasing its charges against him from the initial seven-count charge of treasonable felony charge, to a 15-count amended charge marked FHC/ABJ/CR/383/2015, and signed by the Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, M. B. Abubakar.
Justice Nyako would on Wednesday, adjourn hearing to February 16 after Kanu pleaded not guilty to the amended 15 count charge. After his plea was taken, lead prosecuting lawyer, Magaji Labaran indicated the intention of the prosecution to open it case by calling its first witness, noting that he was with two of his witnesses in court.
However, Kanu’s lead defence lawyer, Mike Ozekhome (SAN) said the defence filed a preliminary objection on Tuesday evening, seeking that the charge be struck out or quashed.
After the back and forth argument, Justice Nyako held that since the first application by the defendant was challenging the propriety of his trial and the competence of the charge, it was appropriate that the court hear him first on that application and then adjourned till February 16.
Meanwhile, as the proceedings were ongoing in Abuja on Wednesday, an Abia State High Court sitting in Umuahia and presided over by Justice Benson Anya, awarded the sum of N1billion to Kanu over the invasion of his home in Afara Ukwu by military personnel on September 10, 2017.
The IPOB leader had approached the court to seek justice following the invasion of his house by soldiers after he was granted bail for treasonable felony brought against him by the Federal Government.
Justice Anya also ordered the Federal Government to apologise to Kanu over the invasion, while advising the government to seek a political solution to the charges of treasonable felony against Kanu. The army has since promised to study the judgement and react accordingly. It is expected to appeal, as the legal fireworks continue.
But many insist that the answer to Kanu’s question cannot come from the legal system.
“Public opinion and sentiments show that Nigerians want Mr. President to deploy political solution and release Mazi Nnamdi Kanu,” said Igbo group, Nzuko Umunna in a statement by Ngozi Odumuko, its executive secretary last week.
“Political solution will lead to permanent peace and sense of nationhood, as the country will only experience true progress in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.”
In the meantime, governors of the Southeast and the leadership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo have said they will meet Buhari within the first quarter of the year to further press the demand for political solution.
But it’s unlikely that the president, who apparently has made up his mind to pursue the case till the end of his administration on May 29, 2023 will pay heed to any idea for political solution to be pursued.